John Dunford’s Election Blog – 30th April 2010

This blog is reposted here from John’s 2010 election blog for ASCL.

The third of the leaders’ debates concluded with a good question from Michael Crowhurst, a teacher in a deprived area of Birmingham who wanted to know how the parties would create opportunities for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. The first debate had included a question from a 17 year old on whether the examination and testing system stifled creativity in schools. Two good questions.

I cannot recall a time when all three major party leaders had young children in state schools, so their commitment to the state system is evident – a contrast from 1979 when Mark Carlisle was secretary of state for education. He later commented that he could not understand why he had been appointed to the post as neither he nor his children had had any experience of state education.

In the time available the party leaders’ answers did little more than scratch the surface of the link between inequality and educational achievement.

Nick Clegg emphasised the LibDem’s pupil premium, targeted at schools with disadvantaged pupils, which would enable schools to reduce class sizes and/or provide one-to-one tuition. He was clear about the priority that needed to be given to support for these children in the early years of education. He also linked his party’s policy on raising the tax threshold to £10,000 to the relieving of poverty.

David Cameron paid a compliment to teachers who ’perform the most incredibly important work in society’ and said that ‘we should do more to support them’. He wanted to strengthen heads’ powers on discipline by abolishing appeals panels and making searching easier. ASCL disagrees with the abolition of appeals panels on the grounds that heads will then have to waste a lot of time and energy in being taken to judicial review in the high court by litigious parents.

David Cameron also emphasised his policy for a greater variety of schools and more academies, but he didn’t mention the party’s policy on a pupil premium, which the other parties accuse him of not knowing how to pay for. Presumably this would be partly funded by the removal of what he described as ‘a lot of waste’ in quangos and in the thousands of pages of regulations and guidance emerging every year from the government. (NB The contemplation room in the DCSF, to which he referred as an example of waste, is, I think, the Muslim prayer room.)

Gordon Brown spoke about child tax credits, which the other parties would scale down, and emphasised his commitment to social mobility, citing one-to-one tuition, Sure Start and the encouragement to more young people to stay in full-time education. He referred briefly to good schools taking over under-performing ones, but failed to set out the immense achievements of the education service during the last 13 years, many of them trying to break the link between poverty and under-achievement – greatly improved exam results, massive support for schools in challenging areas, many fewer schools with less than 30 per cent achieving five high grade GCSEs including English and maths (or equivalent), a big increase in the numbers staying on beyond 16, the raising of the participation age, schools working closely in partnership to the benefit of all in their area, reformed and updated qualifications, healthy food, more sport, better safeguarding, and so on.

Instead, David Cameron was allowed to get away with the statement that there had been ‘13 years of quite a lot of educational failure’. There is still failure in the system, but the successes have surely outweighed the failures.

I still find it hard to understand why the Conservative party, as David Cameron said again last night, trumpets the advantages of greater freedom for schools in one breath, and in the next breath tells schools to teach reading using synthetic phonics and to set pupils by ability. Apart from the inherent contradiction here, I cannot think of any other public service in which a party leader would be so prescriptive about what professionals should do. Politicians don’t tell surgeons how to hold a scalpel, so why do they think it is ok to tell teachers how to teach or heads how to organise their school?

All three party leaders stated that they would protect the schools’ (but not the colleges’ or universities’) budget and that public sector pay would have to be limited.

I was left feeling that the questions had been better than the answers.

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